From Aug. 29, severe damage to a home in Lake Charles caused by a fallen tree during Hurricane Laura. (FEMA News/FEMA.gov)

The Orleans Public Defenders office is criticizing the New Orleans Police Department for recent arrests of people who came to New Orleans fleeing Hurricane Laura and its aftermath on low-level charges — many of them alleged domestic violence incidents — which the office argues is adding an unnecessary burden for evacuees already dealing with a traumatic situation. 

“Our office is concerned about the arresting of evacuees, particularly for minor, more non-violent offenses,” Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton said. “We are very mindful and sensitive. A lot of us here in New Orleans remember Katrina, and certainly we don’t want to add insult to injury for anyone here dealing with the trauma of being displaced, and being run from their homes, having their homes devastated.”

In an email, an NOPD spokesman told The Lens that officers have little discretion when it comes to calls alleging domestic violence. State law and department policy prioritize victim safety in cases of domestic battery, including misdemeanor offenses. If an officer determines that there is probable cause to believe that a domestic violence offense occurred, and there was a primary aggressor, the law and NOPD policy call for an arrest. 

But Bunton said that the police and criminal justice system actors should be working toward providing services and alternatives to incarceration and prosecution for those families. 

“I think in a lot of these situations there could be alternative resources that could be brought to bear for some of these families that are dealing with the stress of displacement, that is short of jail,” he said. “Jail is disorienting, but it is also one of the least effective ways of dealing with family strife. We would hope that each situation would be judged on its own merits, and not have some blanket policy where everyone goes to jail.”

The public defenders office says that around 37 evacuees have been arrested in New Orleans since the hurricane devastated the Lake Charles area last month, many of whom are being sheltered in downtown hotels. Twenty-seven of those were for misdemeanor offenses — 20 of which were domestic violence incidents. 

A handful of others were for municipal charges such as disturbing the peace, criminal damage to property, and theft, public defenders said.  

Thousands of people from southeast Louisiana came to New Orleans to escape the devastation wrought by Hurricane Laura. According to the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate, the city’s capacity to shelter evacuees reached its upper limit at the end of August, when over 9,000 people filled the hotel rooms.

In three big downtown hotels where shelters were set up — the Hilton Riverside, and the Sheraton and Marriott hotels on Canal Street — over 5,500 people were crammed into 1,300 rooms, according to the report. 

Mary Claire Landry, executive director of the New Orleans Family Justice Center, which provides services for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, said that her organization was approached by the United Way to provide services at some of the hotels where evacuees were being sheltered.

But she said that due to an increase in the number of survivors the organization was dealing with, along with staffing shortages, they couldn’t manage to send people to the hotels. Back in June, she told The Lens that the organization already had over 250 people on their waitlist for counseling services, including 50 children. 

Despite not being able to provide services directly to the hotels, Landry said that anyone was welcome to reach out to the organization for help.

Bunton said that the Family Justice Center’s lack of resources was “collaterally part and parcel of the problem.”

“We need to build community capacity to be the first line of defense on these issues as opposed to the jail,” he said. 

NOPD: Officers have little discretion on domestic violence arrests

A spokesperson for the NOPD, Gary Scheets, told The Lens that in some instances, officers have the discretion of issuing summons in lieu of arrest, but not for state domestic violence charges. He noted that, in general, arrests have trended sharply downward since the COVID-19 pandemic came to Louisiana in March. 

“The efforts of NOPD — together with the actions of the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office and local courts — have lowered the jail population,” he said.

“Nevertheless, it is imperative that the New Orleans Police Department retains the option to assess each situation on a case-by-case basis, especially when the incident involves any level of violence. Incidents involving domestic violence are covered under state charges, allowing no discretion regarding an arrest.” 

According to NOPD policy, officers must make an arrest in a domestic violence situation if there is probable cause that a crime occured, unless that person “is a victim of previous battering who poses no risk of impending danger.” 

Bunton said police officers should be able to consider other options.

“I think that all of us as leaders in the criminal legal system, and police in particular, need to think more creatively about how to deal with domestic violence situations specifically, but how we think about how we are dealing with the trauma that is specific to Lake Charles evacuees,” he said.

“I would say that we believe that jail is not the answer in solving these matters. It’s a problem with our criminal legal system more generally. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

Bunton pointed to things like restorative justice — which brings together victims, offenders, and community members to address a conflict outside of the criminal justice system — as a possible method for dealing with some situations. 

“He’s not that bad and bold”

The Orleans Public Defenders said they could not provide information on individual cases because they were still ongoing. But The Lens identified five arrests on domestic disputes in the last month involving residents of parishes affected by Hurricane Laura. The incidents all occurred at or near hotels in the Central Business District, where many evacuees have been housed. 

The reports detail incidents that appear to vary in seriousness. All arrested suspects were booked on state charges of domestic abuse battery, and two on additional charges of domestic abuse battery of a pregnant woman and child endangerment.

Part of the protocol used by NOPD during a domestic incident is to ask the alleged victim a four “risk questions,” which consist of whether or not the feel the alleged offender would cause harm to them or their family, how frequently they are intimidated, threatened, or assaulted, and whether or not they have been threatened or intimidated for seeking help from law enforcement. They also ask the alleged victim to describe the time they were “most frightened or injured” by the other person involved.

In three of the instances, the alleged victim said they were afraid they might be seriously harmed or killed. In one, a physical altercation allegedly caused the victim to drop their one year old child, who bumped their head. The victim specifically told the NOPD officer that the father of her child told her that he was going to kill her that night. In another, the alleged victim described her husband as a “very violent man, and a loose cannon.”

In two, however, the alleged victims said that it was the first time an incident had occurred, and that they weren’t afraid of further harm. Arrests were made anyway. 

The incidents also illustrate the stresses placed on families by being displaced. 

In one incident from early September, a man told an officer that he had come to New Orleans from Lake Charles because of Hurricane Laura. The night he was arrested, according to the police report, he said he had been walking near his hotel “searching for anyone with resources that could assist him and his family with clothes.” 

When he returned to the hotel room where he was staying with his girlfriend, he said that they got into an argument. She told him she was stressed and wanted to go back to Lake Charles. He told her that the city was destroyed and they couldn’t go back. 

According to the alleged victim, she had asked him to go down to the hotel lobby to get food for the children, and an argument ensued. 

She had been on the phone with her mother, who heard the argument and called the police.

When the police arrived, the woman said that her boyfriend had grabbed her by the shoulders and pushed her in front of their children. She refused any medical treatment, and the officer on the scene observed no injuries.

She responded to the risk assessment questions by telling officers that this was the first time something like this had happened, he had never threatened her before, and that there was never a time in which she had been frightened or injured by him before that evening.  

When asked whether she was worried he might seriously harm her or anyone close to her, she said no. 

“He’s not that bad and bold,” she said. 

Still, an arrest was made, and her boyfriend was booked into the jail. According to court records, he was given a $100 bond and issued a stay away order. Jail records show that he is no longer in custody. 

NOPD declined to comment on the specifics of the case. 

Nicholas Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...